hollywood is still casting able-bodied actors to play characters with disabilities

95% of television characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors, despite the raft of talent in Hollywood.

by Isabelle Hellyer
19 July 2016, 2:00pm

rj mitte, Photography Paul Phung

Diversity is an issue in Hollywood: we know it, and so do you. Conversation reached a fever pitch this year, fueled by the #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign and Jada Pinkett Smith's real life boycott of the ceremony. Marginalized groups are losing out on the awards—and roles—they deserve. Characters of color are played by white actors, trans roles are given to cis actors, and—as a new study has confirmed—disabled characters are almost always played by able-bodied actors.

A study led by the Ruderman Foundation, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, found 95% of television characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors. It's a statistic that's at odds with the real world: 20% of the US population is disabled — but while these actors are out there, they're not getting cast. In fact, many actors with disabilities work less than once a year.

When the report looked at 31 of the most popular shows on American TV (and Netflix) it found of all the characters with disabilities, only four actors with disabilities were cast. Jay Ruderman, president of the Foundation, explained: "Because of the widespread stigma in Hollywood against hiring actors with disabilities, we very rarely see people with real disabilities on screen," continuing, "By systematically casting able-bodied actors portraying characters with disabilities, Hollywood is hurting the inclusion of people with disabilities in our country."

That's not to say actors with disability are invisible: if we look to some of the most popular programming on our screens, when actors with disability are cast in leading roles it makes for better storytelling — from Jamie Brewer in American Horror Story to paraplegic actor Daryl Mitchell in NCIS: New Orleans. Breaking Bad's RJ Mitte is even crossing over to fashion: he recently took to the runway for Vivienne Westwood. As these actors prove; real diversity makes television better for everyone. 

READ: i-D meets RJ Mitte, the actor changing Hollywood's perception of disability


Text Isabelle Hellyer
Photography Paul Phung

rj mitte